Cisco Blogs

Cisco Gets Real with Alternate Reality Games

- October 14, 2009 - 10 Comments

As I promised in my blog last week, here’s a closer look at the alternate reality game (ARG) that was developed for the Cisco Global Sales Meeting.  I give you a chance at the end of my blog to experience for yourself what it’s like to play the game.  

But read on…

Game Overview:  The Threshold

The Threshold was a four-week long alternate reality game designed to build teamwork, build awareness of Cisco products and services, and to provide an entertaining and fun experience.  This was key since we were moving away from an in-person to a virtual event.

Players were set free to explore on their own …to discover web sites, characters, phone numbers, email accounts and clues leading to the kidnapping of the fictional reseacher Seunghee Badawi-Kim and her fictional prototype of the Direct Neural Interface (DNI) glasses.  Clues to unlock the encryption key were hidden everywhere, including in emails and voice mails sent out from Cisco executives, on PPT slides during the virtual presentations, in the ‘chat zone’ and even the mini-games.  Players also got help from Jax Brueger, an espioniage specialist (and our version of 24’s Jack).  Ultimately, the nemesis in the game responsible for kidnaping Badawi-Kim was found out to be the “Ghost in the Machine” (our version of Hal) …a compilation of Badawi-Kim’s thoughts and experiences with the glasses. 

What met or surpassed expectations:Seunghee

Overall player participation and engagement were higher than what we expected with 13,000 playing the game vs the 7,000 we hoped to get, and at last count, we had at least 4,000 posts to our discussion forum (when typically we get an average of just 4 posts to any sales forum).   

We were also thrilled that participation was so global.  For instance, two of our most active teams were from Pakistan and the Netherlands.  We were afraid of the game being too U.S. centric.

And we were glad to see Cisco’s technologies being leveraged so heavily.  The top 3-5 individual players had a persistent WebEx chat going on.

What was unexpected:

Once the sales meeting began, it was apparent that players had a much more difficult time focusing on the ARG. Postings seemed to drop, as did keeping the wiki current, which then affected the ability for new players to get involved. What had previously been medium-difficulty puzzles seemed to take much longer to solve, as the “hive mind” became otherwise occupied.
From a design standpoint the one major unexpected hiccup was the many complications in attempting mass emails to players. This caused quite a bit of last-minute redesign in how we communicated clues. The one avenue that proved to be the most dependable was the broadcast voice mail drops, and had we known the extent of this earlier, we could have recorded much more content and used them as a primary puzzle/content distribution mechanism throughout the game.

Also unexpected was the amount of brute force attempts going on. This may have been due, in part, to the players’ initial finding of “beat 2 and 3” videos in an unprotected media directory which told players, in essence, that they could get an advantage over other players if they were resourceful enough. Players were about as resourceful as they come, and the extent of this was not anticipated as well as it could have been.    

In the last two hours of the game, everyone became eerily silent and began working together quietly offline.  In fact, the winning team literally emerged from 80th place and from the pool of unseen “lurkers” who followed the game closely but didn’t post or otherwise make their presence known. 

What the players had to say:

  • Great ARG,  now back to the RRG – Real Reality Game!

  • I already  miss this game ~~

  • Fun game. We’ve got some seriously smart folks at  Cisco.

  • It’s  been a rollercoaster ride for some of us. Thanks  all.

  • I’m really  impressed with how this game came together. It was a lot of fun, and we  definitely accomplished our collaboration goal.

  • I  just wanted to say thank you to everyone for making this such an enjoyable  experience. Having never played an ARG I didn’t know what to expect. The game  was great, but even better was the personal touch each of you brought to it!

  • Once  word got out that Lars and I were doing well the whole NL sales send us massive chats and vcards in the sales meeting portal (even the our country director came online  to support us!).

  • This kept me awake till the end. Mind you I did receive a lot  of support/assistance from all of you that I’m very grateful for. THANK YOU.

Final Poll: 

The Threshold was …

  • A great experience and a great component of the sales mtg: 51%

  • Interesting and fun: 35%

  • Interesting to watch, even though I did not play: 3%

  • A distraction to the sales mtg: 11%

My Final Thoughts:

There seems to be overwhelming evidence that the ARG successfully accomplished all of its goals, surpassing expectations in most areas. Players collaborated, made friends, learned about Cisco products, cooperated between countries and languages, showed critical thinking skills, learned new things, and best of all, had fun.  I have a feeling that all of us will be seeing more ARGs in our future.  I’ll post my thoughts on gaming as a tool for learning in my next blog.

Do You Want to Play a Game?

Many of you have asked me if you can play The Threshold, so here you go.   (Remember, this is all about solving puzzles by using links and information to get to the next level. So here’s the first clue.)

If you can’t figure it out, we’ll post hints next week.

Happy gaming!

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  1. There is visibly a bunch to know about this. I assume you made some good points in features also.

  2. I didn't know for this one before will have to find it and try,looks pretty contageus

  3. Brilliant marketing idea ! everybody loves game, it's a fun way to learn about new products. I've downloaded the PDF and still trying to figure it out, the puzzle's pretty tough.

  4. This sounds INTRESETING...are you going to make this online game or a platform based piece?

  5. that's a nice example of web treasure hunt, a clever way to entertain, motivate employees and strengthen the corporate culture.

  6. I really like it when games help getting new real life contacts or even friends and in general demand teamwork.

  7. I vastly prefer to watch movies while I play games. As such I generally turn off the sound and just rely on graphics and text to keep up. That would mean I wouldn't be a massive fan of the voicemail hints but would get really involved in the e-mail clues.That being said, I think I'd be in the minority. I almost never see another gamer with the sound off.

  8. Wow- super cool stuff! I love ARGs; thanks for providing us with so much info on the business side of things- not to mention letting us play :)

  9. This puzzle looks fun I am downloading the PDF now and am going to try to to figure it out! This looks strange all I see is three triangle shape things? Hmmmm

  10. Is the clue URL meant to be misspelled ? :)